Reflections on a wet September, Lake Wendouree

Spring clouds over the lake.

Spring clouds over the lake.

Winter still has its wet, icy hands on Ballaratia (September was our wettest one yet), but there have been a few days when spring’s been in the air: cherry blossoms have been and gone, trees are showing their shoots, cygnets are on the water. The botanical gardens and the Lake Wendouree shore opposite have become valued places of peace and fresh air — with bonus Pokemon. But mostly a tranquil stroll with seasonal reflections. Here’s a few shots snapped on the hoof when the sun’s been out. As Eric said, it can’t rain all the time.

Cygnets, Lake Wendouree

Cygnets, Lake Wendouree

Walkway cut by the overflowing lake.

Walkway cut by the overflowing lake.

Flowers in the gardens.

Flowers in the gardens.

Spring statue, botanical gardens.

Spring statue, botanical gardens.

Marooned bench.

Marooned bench.

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A Valentine’s Day journey to the lost cemetery

Blue Mount Cemetery

Entrance to Blue Mount Cemetery, near Blackwood

There is something about an overgrown cemetery. Headstones covered in ivy and moss, that slow return to nature, memorial if not memory fading. So when I saw a story in the local paper about just such a graveyard near Blackwood, not even an hour from Ballarat, I had to check it out. Besides, what better way to spend Valentine’s Day?

Unfortunately, the cemetery wasn’t marked on our Google map, and guided only by this very informative blog post, our first foray yielded a couple of miles of rough dirt road but no graveyard outside Blackwood. (I’ve since found this website, which offers GPS co-ordinates for oodles of cemeteries.)

But with the clues contained therein and a serendipitous spotting of a road sign outside nearby Newbury, we found our way to the Blue Mount Cemetery. (Heading from Trentham, towards Newbury, take the gravel Old Blackwood Road on the left and shortly after, on the right, Tower Track.)

The fenced area, at the base of a hill on which sits a tower, was covered by ferns and blackberry vines — bonus, the berries were ripe. Nom nom nom.

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Only about a dozen gravesites were visible. The latest interment seems to have been in the ’60s, although there is a more recent memorial plaque. The couple of family names visible on the few remaining headstones suggests some district pioneers here.

Scat suggests there might also be wombats in the area.

There is no signage, just the gate posts by the side of the road and the sagging wire fence to denote the site.

It reminded me a little of other wonderful wild cemeteries in the UK, Highgate and York, where the line between existence and nonexistence is blurred by wild growths of green. A little melancholy, even under the sun, but overall peaceful and quite beautiful. If you want a symbol of the passing of the human age, this would be one of the more powerful ones.

For the record, the Valentine’s Day celebration of togetherness included a picnic by a duck pond in Trentham, a new gargoyle for the patio and some yard work, fish and chips and a bottle of red. Death and life thus marked, the great wheel turning, all in its own good time.

Blue Mount Cemetery, near Blackwood

Blue Mount Cemetery, near Blackwood

Taking a peek at Mt Macedon

View from Camels Hump, Mt Macedon

View over Hanging Rock from Camels Hump

Mt Macedon, the peak, as opposed to the village on its slopes, is just over an hour’s drive from Ballarat — less from Melbourne — and has become a rather handy day trip.

Highlights so far:

Mr. This cafe is in the town of Macedon. I pulled in the first time because of the sign saying ‘all day breakfast’, and went back the second because the food was excellent and the staff friendly. (The only blooper so far, a failure to deliver a juice.) They have a beetroot fritter that is to die for, serve pancakes with fresh berries and honey comb, and have some of the best coffee.

Koala at Camels Hump, Mt Macedon

Koala at Camels Hump

Cross Memorial, Mt Macedon

Cross Memorial at Mt Macedon

Camels Hump.
This short but steep walk leads to a viewing platform atop granite cliffs that looks across Hanging Rock. On the most recent visit, we saw an echidna, a koala and two wild goats.

Top of the Range cafe and gallery. This cafe, near the Memorial Cross, is open 10am till 4pm seven days a week and has a veranda with a wide view. It has a resident peacock called Kenneth, as yet unseen by me. It also has friendly staff, delicious scones and a very tasty iced coffee, as well as handcrafts and souvenirs. The memorial itself is a large (rebuilt) cross, 21m tall, commemorating the dead of World War I, with other campaigns acknowledged at the start of the path. Melbourne is visible from the site, if the haze and smog allow. It is surrounded by dense eucalypt forest and manicured flower garden. There is also a memorial to a 1948 aircraft crash nearby, the Kurana memorial,in which the crew of an ANA DC-3 were killed and the air hostess honoured for her bravery. On one visit, visitors paused to allow a brown snake to cross the path.

Sanatorium Lake, Mt Macedon

Sanatorium Lake

Sanatorium Lake. The parking area closest to the lake is at the end of an attractive dirt road bordered by huge pine and gum trees. The small lake was built to service a tuberculosis sanatorium — one had already been established nearby in a former hospital, since destroyed by fire, but plans to build a newer, bigger one were scuppered. But the lake remains, and is only 200m or so from the car park through forest, and its stillness offers a lovely spot for, ahem, reflection.

Forest Glade, Mt Macedon

Forest Glade

Forest Glade Gardens: We ambled through these impressive private gardens in Mt Macedon for about 2.5 hours, and still hadn’t covered all the trails. The garden offers a variety of flora, from manicured gardens to Aussie scrub, as it spills down terraces that can make steep going at times. But there are plenty of flat trails and lots of shady seats, with sculptures ranging from myth to kids at play to portraits and more. The site is also home to the Stokes Collection, but you need to book, and pay extra, to see this private antique collection. The gardens are open daily and cost $8 by honour system at the gate — limited street parking and no public toilets or water on site. Well worth the visit, even for someone like me who doesn’t know their flowers at all. Also, we saw an echidna in a garden bed abutting the house — very cool.

More pictures of Mt Macedon


Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB): a quick snap

Home by Nightfall, by Angela Bacon-Kidwell

Home by Nightfall, by Angela Bacon-Kidwell

The Ballarat International Foto Biennale officially opened on Saturday night — pizza, wine (Langi Ghiran, no less! oh so noms) and a whole lotta people checking out the exhibits in the Mining Exchange.

We managed to roll two other venues on Saturday — one before and one after. The first was Stacey Moll‘s ‘Frankenstein Atomic Frontier’ at wonderful comic shop Heroes HQ (darn, the latest Saga trade isn’t out yet) — I particularly like a gloomy alley shot of a woman with book, like an urban mage with grimoire. The second was ‘Silver’, by a collective of non-digital aficionados, which included some nice black-and-white industrial decay, hosted at Sebastiaans, the cafe, which included a pretty decent fisherman’s basket.

There are about 80 venues this year, many of them eateries — you could easily put together a food tour based on the exhibits.

My favourite so far, at the Mining Exchange: ‘Home by Nightfall’, an exquisite narrative of dust, sunlight and birds from Texan artist Angela Bacon-Kidwell, in which she reflects on her emotional journey during her father’s fatal illness. Also striking, some of the refugee photos from Maltese news photographer Darrin Zammit Lupi — incredible captures, brimming with emotion.

We moved to Ballarat in time for the previous biennale, and found it an intriguing way to explore the town. We hope to spend a few more days this time around. Sadly, we missed out on participating in the ‘Ballarat Through My Eyes’ contest, because it runs in the lead-up to the biennale itself. The event asks photographers to present photos in three categories taken in the Rat — bit of a treasure hunt! Maybe next time.

The biennale goes until 20 September 2015. Look for the biennale lens logo outside venues, or check the website for who’s got what. Amazingly, most of the exhibitions, as was the opening-night shindig, are free.

Wine time at Heathcote

Armstead Estate, at Lake Eppalock

Armstead Estate, at Lake Eppalock

On our third visit to Heathcote, home of some of my favourite reds this side of the Barossa, we actually got out to some cellar doors.

Previously, we hit the three in the main street — one is a Hub for the region, so there’s a selection of the local offerings to be had there. This time, with the benefit of a three-night stay and superb winter weather, we ventured forth from our base at Cranford Cottage (I’ve extolled its virtues previously, and these remain undimmed (indeed, they come with additional ‘resident’ kangaroo, and egg rings *wink*); a three-nighter is the minimum to really gain the benefit of this bucolic B&B). Being invited to join a Friday-night soiree and meet some of the locals, including winemakers, all friendly to a fault, just added to the impetus to make the most of the weather — and the wine.

Just up the road is Downing Estate, and OMG, the humble cellar door — essentially a garage under the house — belies the quality of the wine. We scooped up very well priced ’07, ’08 and 2011 shiraz, had a chat with vintner Bob and played ball with his dog Max.

Fishing, Lake Eppalock, from Armstead Estate

Fishing, Lake Eppalock, from Armstead Estate

Then we chugged to the other side of town, out to the shore of Lake Eppalock, to take in the lakeside splendour of Armstead Estate. The cellar door is in an old hut near the 1865 homestead, with fire, cheese and olives, and again the wine was hard to resist — even a Marsanne came home with us, this riesling-style white earmarked for a hot day and a cheese platter. A cab sauv and a Roxy’s Paddock shiraz rounded out the souvenirs. There are plans afoot to add B&B cottages, and what an addition they would make to this already ideal picnic spot.

We’d run out of puff so skipped Sanguine Estate and its enticingly labelled Kindred and Progeny reds (players of Vampire: The Masquerade will understand the temptation, as if the quality of the vino wasn’t enough): got to save something for next time.

We did, however, keep up the tradition of a meal at the Willow Room — Kirstyn had venison and I had barra, both dishes brilliant — but were a little dismayed to see the business and building up for sale. Here’s hoping the tradition of fine food and top service continues!

Morning mist at Cranford Cottage, Heathcote

Morning mist at Cranford Cottage, Heathcote

I can also report that the gravel drive up to the Mt Ida lookout is not rewarded by an unrestricted view: perhaps best seen from the porch with a tipple.

Among the region’s many events, two to keep track of are the Heathcote on Show in June and the Wine and Food Festival in October. Or just pop out on a spare weekend: it’s little more than an hour from Melbourne.

Sunset at Cranford Cottage, Heathcote

Sunset at Cranford Cottage, Heathcote

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Tucking in to the Grampians

The Grampians isn’t just about the stunning mountains, native forests and picturesque pastoral scenes. The region, centred around the spectacular national park about three hours west of Melbourne, is also ideal grazing country for visitors, too, as we found out last weekend on a trip organised by Grampians Tourism.

I love the Grampians in the cooler, off-peak months, when the trails aren’t as crowded and you don’t get baked when you’re out and about. Plus, there’s the fireplaces, perfect for a welcome home tipple after a day of touring, hiking or just lounging.

Mt Langi Ghiran winery

Mt Langi Ghiran winery and cellar door

Our first port of call – or shiraz of call, if you like – was picturesque Mt Langi Ghiran winery, a mere 15 minutes through gum tree-lined rural roads off the Western Highway at Bayindeen.

The cellar door is set on the edge of the vineyard with ranges framing the scene, and the wine is exquisite. This is shiraz country, and Langi produces an awesome line-up, with solid body and lots of pepper. There’s also cabernet, riesling, some sparklers and a refreshing pinot gris, but the shiraz really sets the tone for a great weekend getaway.

Grampians Estate cellar door

Grampians Estate cellar door

On previous visits to the region, we’ve turned off at Ararat, but this time we’re ushered further along the Western Highway to the township of Great Western, handily located between Ararat and Stawell. There are three cellar doors to sample – two of Australia’s oldest wineries in Seppelt and family owned and run Best’s, and the boutique Grampians Estate, whose espresso signs and medal-winning reds attract 7,000 visitors a year.

We don’t have time for the veteran wineries with their tempting underground cellars on this visit, but we do get to stop at Grampians Estate’s inviting cellar door – it’s kid-friendly, with a shady veranda for taking in a cheese platter and a drop of the local, and offers a bit of a wine education as well with a short tutorial ($20 a head).

A relative newcomer on the block although its vines date back to 1870, 20-year-old Grampians Estate specialises in shiraz, ranging from the top-of-the-line The Streeton Reserve to the not-too-sweet Rutherford Sparkling that has garnered about half the estate’s awards 30-odd trophies. Find also pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling, amongst others, and a tasty Rutherglen topaque.

steel cutters cottage, great western

Steel Cutters Cottage, Great Western

Great Western itself is otherwise a whistle stop, slated to be bypassed, but there’s a new B&B that hopes to change that – certainly, the Steel Cutters Cottage will be ideally positioned once the truck traffic is moved away from the front door.

This century-old two-bedroom cottage, once the home of the town’s blacksmith, has been renovated in a mix of old and new. Owners Rohan and Marlene Erard aim to provide a gourmet B&B experience, and have installed a catering-quality two-oven modern kitchen to do their produce justice – they plan to expand the operation in future, using the kitchen to cater on-site for dinners.

Rohan had a meal of lamb shanks in the oven when we arrived, the table set, the fire lit; all we had to do was finish off the polenta he’d prepared and dish up the meat and beans, washed down with a local drop, naturally.

The provided DIY brekkie consisted of bacon, eggs, tomato, mushrooms, fresh bread, cereal: noms.

Toscana Olives

Toscana Olives

The approach towards Halls Gap, the hub of the Grampians, offers several scenic routes from Great Western, but there’s no rush: not with Toscana Olives and Deirde’s restaurant next door at Laharum Grove.

Toscana is a family operation, producing extra virgin olive oil sold pure and with infusions such as garlic, herbs and lemon. Also available at the farm store are hand-picked table olives, honey from the farm’s hives, shiraz and balsamic vinegars, and complementary local products such as hand-made soaps and sauces.

Our host, Greg Mathews, tells us we’ve missed the production by a couple of days as they wait for a technician from Italy to install a new centrifuge – all processing is mechanical, ensuring the farm retains its organic status. But the emus have started the picking early, not that the family begrudges the visitors their share.

Deidre's restaurant, Laharum Grove

Deidre’s restaurant, Laharum Grove

Further down a dirt road, January bushfires have blackened a large proportion of Laharum Grove’s olive orchard and it’s a heart-breaking sight, but Deidre Baum is defiantly philosophical as she predicts it will take up to five years for the crop to be back in full swing – they’ve got some serious pruning to do to help the salvageable trees recover. ‘It could’ve been worse,’ she says, ‘and now I’m putting everything into this.’

‘This’ is her eponymous restaurant, barely six months old, built in a former storage shed, the metal walls and concrete floor offering a rustic-industrial backdrop to very fine seasonal fare: a duck breast and beetroot salad for Kirstyn, and lamb with winter vegetables, couscous and tzatziki for me, a shared, divine dessert of semifreddo and rhubarb with vanilla cotton candy, washed down with Langi Ghiran shiraz and a coffee for the road.

We go over the range to get to Halls Gap, passing through devastated areas – ash-covered ground, stark black trunks, road signs bubbled and blackened by heat – that speak to the ferocity of the bushfires, but as we wind through the national park the forest is largely untouched – while Halls Gap was evacuated, the town was unscathed, although tourism was hit hard, and some trails and sites remain closed.

Grampians Chalets. Pic: Kirstyn McDermott

Grampians Chalets. Pic: Kirstyn McDermott

At the well-appointed Grampians Chalets, a short walk from the heart of the township, new owners Kay and Peter Rankin are enjoying the change of pace from their previous life in Sydney hospitality. The site has eight self-catering chalets: five two-bedders andee deluxe for couples. Prviously e’d had of the family cabins and found it quiet and comfortable, but this time we are in a deluxe: one large timber room with a spa and gas heater. The porch overlooks a pond populated with ducks and a heron, and in the paddocks yonder, a large mob of kangaroos graze. The roos come into the town’s yards at night, a perfect reason not to go driving after dark. How fortunate it’s just a toddle down for dinner – if only the footpath was better lit. Luckily, there’s not a lot of traffic, and we go roadside, delighting in the sight of a kangaroo and joey nibbling on an unfenced garden.

beer taps at Kookaburra Hotel, Halls Gap

Kookaburra Hotel

At the Kookaburra Hotel, owners Rick and Vonne Heinrich are staging yet another makeover – they’ve been at the bar and bistro for nigh on 35 years, and have made it renowned for its quality food. The renovation – the business was formerly the Kookaburra Bar and Bistro – is a week from being finished when we visit. The couple are introducing a lounge area for a more casual dining experience, but there’ll be no compromise with the menu: we enjoy a three-course meal of duckling risotto, a lamb rack with steamed veg and potato bake with an amazing herb and honey sauce, and mango, lime and coconut sorbet, all washed down with local pinot and a coffee for the stroll home. Rick’s not just a dab hand in the kitchen – he’s made the table tops and bar from reused hard wood, and they look spectacular.

Jason at Basecamp Eatery, Halls Gap

Jason at Basecamp Eatery. Pic: KMcD

Down the street, Jason Ralph has returned to his home country after working most recently in hospitality in Melbourne, to open the Basecamp Eatery. It’s a funky space, delightfully visually busy with chalkboards and coffee bags, and has a range of quality café tucker on the menu: pizzas, burgers, fish and chips, handmade gourmet pies, kebabs, and a breakfast including toast with jam, pancakes, and the brekky burger — it’s filling, with beef pattie, egg, bacon, hash brown and more. Mine is accompanied by a freshly squeezed juice and excellent coffee.

Jason has plans to expand the business and slowly turn the focus to, as the name suggests, outdoor health and exercise, and there’s an area out the back just waiting to introduce a range of fitness activities to go with the splendid food and natural environment of the park.

Sparrows Cafe, Beaufort

Sparrows Cafe, Beaufort

On the way home, we stop over in Beaufort, a charming highway town on the eastern edge of the Grampians tourism regions and also in line to be bypassed as the two-lane extension creeps ever westward.

At Sparrows, on the main road, self-trained cook Cameron dishes up a range of tasty treats, from homemade sausage rolls to a delightful duck dish, meatballs with tomato sauce and a yummy hint of thyme, and cauliflower and ricotta fritters. Good coffee and chai, too.

The day we’re there, a bevy of young waitstaff are kept busy throughout the café’s three rooms – Sparrows started as a veritable hole in the wall about three-and-a-half years ago but has expanded to take in all the space of a former car garage, and the décor is a wonderful mix of old signs, mismatched chairs and pastel-coloured timber doors.

We don’t need dinner when we get home, and I’m kind of missing those wood and gas fires. Luckily, now we’ve moved to Ballarat, the Grampians is even closer!

More Grampians pictures

Farm land near Mt Langi Ghiran

Farm land near Mt Langi Ghiran

  • Another, shorter version of this article appeared in the Herald Sun on 28 June 2014.

  • Bearing up to a weekend in Melbourne

    At the weekend we went to Melbourne.

    Feathered polar bear installation You started it ... I finish it, by Paola Pivi, at NGV

    You started it … I finish it, by Paola Pivi, at NGV

    We saw, at the National Gallery of Victoria, a stunning collection of artwork by William Blake. He made his own process for printing words and pictures together. He had to write backwards — maybe that was why, as my wife pointed out, he had i before e after c. We went to Dante’s hell with Blake and it was a free ride. Next door was a video installation, part of which involved jiggled bellies, swaying branches, a tilting table, body parts being covered in dye and washed off. In the foyer, THERE WERE BEARS. Polar bears covered in feathers. No touching. Kirstyn was jumping out of her skin, wanting to hug these life-size, brightly coloured sculptures. The sheer delight these statues brought, not just to children but adults too …

    Untitled, 2003, by Lee Bul

    Untitled, 2003, by Lee Bul

    Also for free at NGV was a whole floor of funky furniture and glassware, a Warhol or two, and an alien hanging in disassembled (or reassembling) pieces. Here and there amongst the art were little placards, part of the self-guided Art As Therapy tour, that directed the viewer to consider the work, perhaps in a different way to what it, at first sight, suggested; at the very least, the placards pointed out symbolism and meaning for the viewer to ponder and appreciate.

    We went to the Willy Lit Fest. It’s a literary festival held annually in Williamstown, on the bay. Kirstyn was on a panel with Lucy Sussex and moderator Dmetri Kakmi talking about the Gothic and horror, and then we had lunch with friends. Or rather, we ordered lunch with friends, who ate theirs and went to the next panel, while we waited for ours, and ate it, and took the ferry back to the city. I love seeing a city from the water. I especially like the cranes, not to be confused with the cormorants, and the low bridges the ferry slips under, vaguely reminiscent of Venice’s waterways, and the high bridges it goes under, which I usually see from the other side.

    Westgate Bridge seen from Williamstown Ferry

    Westgate Bridge

    Cranes seen from Williamstown Ferry


    Bolte Bridge seen from Williamstown Ferry

    Bolte Bridge

    Williamstown Ferry approaching Melbourne

    Williamstown Ferry

    We saw Gary Numan perform his Splinter concert, rocking the Hi-Fi bar for 90 minutes and never a non-lyric word said, but an awesome grin at the encore that said it all really. The Red Paintings were the support, two kimono ladies doing wonderful things to violin and bass while a man called Trash with a sloth on his back sang about a failed revolution, and painters painted, one on canvas, one on a dancer not quite game to go-go in her underwear and carnival bobble head. The sound was far more crisp for them than for Numan, where volume won out, but everyone played their hearts out.

    On the Saturday night, walking up the street, we saw a water feature, a wall with water running down it, and people were making patterns and words from autumn leaves, stuck to the surface. Seasonal art, flowing naturally.

    We ate Japanese one night, at our favourite city Japanese restaurant, Edoya, and it did not disappoint. The next night we picked a Vietnamese restaurant, Pho & Co, at random and ordered up a storm of share dishes. The service was slick and the food was quick to arrive and sensational. We also scored a breakfast table at hole-in-the-wall Aix creperie: awesome way to start the day.

    We watched a movie we hadn’t heard of but the poster looked so very cool: The Babadook. It’s Australian. It’s incredibly good. Someone — I suspect the writer/director, Jennifer Kent — had a good, hard think about horror movies and mental illness, and the resulting metaphors were brilliantly drawn. All the way through to the end. At the panel at the Willy Lit Fest both Kirstyn and Lucy said how horror can be used to approach difficult subjects, how symbolism can help us be touched by something we’d otherwise shy from: this was, Kirstyn said, the perfect example. I agree.

    We stayed at the Citiclub Hotel on Queen St. The website we booked through mentioned the competitive price and the comfy room and the convenient location, but skipped the fact the hotel contains a nightclub. I intend never to stay there again.

    Melbourne: so much to do, but be careful where you lay your head.